Australia’s Top End offers a variety of experiences, from fine dining in the cosmopolitan capital, Darwin, to full-on Crocodile Dundee-style camping by a billabong. Aboriginal cultures have a deep resonance through the striking landscapes, and the area contains some of the last true wilderness in Australia.
Tropical Top End has two distinct seasons; Wet (from November until April) and Dry (from April until November). Although the Dry, with warm, sunny days, and cooler nights, tends to be better for travelling, expecially driving and camping, the hot, humid Wet, with its monsoon rains shouldn’t be ignored. The vibrant green vegetation bursts into life, waterfalls that were trickles in the Dry become thundering cascades, and the frequent electrical storms have a powerful beauty.
Rain or shine, here’s our five suggestions for unforgettable ways to get wild in the tropical Top End.
1) Get close to crocodiles in Kakadu
Kakadu is Australia’s largest National Park, protecting a beautiful and diverse landscape rich in biodiversity, with more than 2,000 species of plants and over a third of Australia’s birds. It’s home to some of the most significant cultural locations for indiginous Australians, and a visit offers an insight into the deep spiritual connections of people to the land.
Saltwater crocodiles are one of Australia’s biggest conservation success stories. Hunted close to extinction in the 1970s, it’s estimated there’s now almost 200,000 in the wild across the Northern Territory, Western Australia, and Queensland. As a large predator, they play a significant role in the balance of wetland ecosystems, ensuring they remain a healthy home for a broad range of other creatures, from fish and turtles to birds and butterflies.
The East Alligator River forms the boundary between Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land, and a scenic cruise into the Yellow Water wetlands gives you the opportunity to take snaps of its famous and most feared inhabitants, without receiving one in return. You’ll also learn about the cultural significance of crocodiles to indigenous people, and hear stories of their role in the Dreamtime myths.
2) Bushwalk the Jatbula Trail
The Katherine region is where the semi-arid outback scrub merges into the tropical scenery of the Top End. A series of otherworldly gorges carved in ancient red sandstone by the Katherine River as it flows over an escarpment at the edge of Arnhem Land, headed for the Timor Sea, forms the heart of Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) National Park.
Nitmiluk is a hiker’s paradise, with hundreds of kilometres of trails, ranging from short strolls on the riverbank which our 5 day tour including Katherine explores to overnight hikes. Bushwalking is a perfect way to get close to the unique native wildlife of Australia; keep your eyes open for wallaby and wombat tracks, and the spectacular diversity of birds in the monsoon forest.
The Jatbula trail is a 66 km multi-day hike, taking between four and five days to complete, starting at the Nitmiluk visitor centre and finishing by the picturesque Leliyn (Edith Falls). The plunge pool at Leliyn and swimming hole at nearby Sweetwater Pool are the ideal way to relax at the end of your hike. Places on the trail are limited and must be booked in advance from the Nitmiluk centre.
3) Discover the Tiwi Islands
Lying around 80 km offshore from Darwin, the Tiwi Islands (Bathurst and Melville) have been isolated from the Australian mainland since the last ice age, and as a result have plants and wildlife found nowhere else in the world. The extensive forests are an internationally important location for the numbers of birds found there, and the island’s beaches are nesting sites for rare sea turtles.
The unique wildlife and huge variety of birds in the islands inspires much of the famous artwork of the Tiwi people. Take time to sit with the artists and listen to the stories of the island and myths associated with widlife that are woven, carved, printed, or painted into their works.
A permit is required to visit the islands, except during the (Australian rules) footy final game in March, which is the centerpiece of a huge community celebration. Boat tours and scenic flights to the islands can be arranged with local tour companies, with cultural experiences, sport fishing, and nature hikes the most popular options.
4) Go birdwatching at Mistake Billabong
The ephemeral Mary River only flows during the Wet, but leaves a vast interconnected area of wetlands, creeks, and billabongs in its floodplain through the Dry. The National Park is home to a diverse flora and fauna, including many of the unique and colourful bird species of the Northern Territory.
The network of boardwalks, viewing platforms, and bird hides around tranquil Mistake Billabong make it one of the best locations in the Top End for watching the secret lives of birds like jacanas, egrets, and jabiru. Other wildlife, such as wallabies and goannas (monitor lizards), rely on the billabong for water through the Dry. Both freshwater and saltwater crocodiles are found throughout the rivers and creeks in the region, and extreme caution should be taken around the water’s edge in the National Park.
As Mistake Billabong is around 150 km from Darwin on the Arnhem Highway, it’s possible to visit as a day trip; or you can extend your time in Mary River National Park by camping at nearby Couzen’s Lookout, famous for the stunning sunset views.
5) Camp out on the Cobourg Peninsula
Situated in the western corner of Arnhem Land, in the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, the isolated Cobourg Peninsula is one of the most beautiful locations in the Northern Territory. A landscape of rugged scrub and rainforest, remote dunes and coastal grassland, edged by reef-fringed white sand beaches, this is a destination for the truly adventurous.
The protected waters around the peninsula are home to spectacular coral reefs, brimming with fish and other marine creatures, and excellent barramundi fishing tempts visitors at the beginning and end of the dry season. Dolphins and whales are often spotted from the shore, and in more sheltered locations, mangrove swamps and seagrass meadows are rich feeding grounds for dugongs and several species of rare sea turtle, including leatherback turtles, the largest of all.
The National Park is also home to the largest wild herd of banteng (Indonesian cattle), and a variety of native Australian wildlife, including dingoes, echidnas, and bandicoots. Birdwatchers will be keen to know more than 200 species of birds can be spotted. It goes without saying that saltwater crocodiles, venomous snakes, bull sharks, and other dangerous wildlife are also resident in the National Park, and caution must be taken at all times.
A permit is required for overnight stays in the National Park, whether you arrive by land, sea or air, and there is a fee to bring vehicles into the area. Access to the peninsula is restricted to the dry season, as the unsealed 4WD track from Gunbalanya is only suitable between May and October. Air charters and boat transfers can be arranged through local tour organisers.
We offer multi-day and day tours to some of the beset spots in the Top End. Check out our Kakadu, Litchfield and other Top End Tours here or contact us with questions about planning your Australia trip.
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